Albania: to Kruja, and a little brush with history


IMG_2477Kruja sits on a hilltop, not far from Tirana. We went there on impulse, booking a room as we set off. We were thrilled when the ordinary-sounding ‘Bar Restaurant Merlika’ turned out to be right inside the scruffy, rambling walls of Kruja citadel. In the afternoon heat we climbed the steep cobbled streets, through the likeable handicraft bazaar and past the museum designed by Hoxha’s daughter and her husband. (Enver Hoxha was the communist leader of Albania from 1944-85, who ruled with an iron fist.)

Beside the castle tower on the skyline, is the Ottoman home of Artur Merlika and his young family. Their restaurant, on the shady terrace, has the most amazing views over the plains to the ‘Accursed’ mountains in the north, and across to the coast. Our simple but comfortable room looked out over this terrace. Inside the main house we lingered in the beautiful traditional rooms created for entertaining – with their separate spaces for men and woman. Everything in them was handmade, from the woven carpets to the skillfully made heavy-lace curtains depicting the Albanian two-headed eagle and an image of Skanderbeg on his horse.

Artur Merlika was a charming host. As the day visitors departed back to Tirana in their coaches, he organised sunset drinks for us with that stunning view. Later he came and chatted about life under the variousIMG_2486 regimes that have ruled and misruled Albania. We heard that the house was built by his great-grandfather and, like many other homes, it was taken away from the family by the communists. It was only returned to them years later.  Artur was particularly proud of his grandfather, an intellectual who, he discreetly said, had ‘served’ Albania. Later, after we left, we googled his grandfather’s  name and found that Mustafa Merlika-Kruja had been Albania’s Prime Minister just before Hoxha, from 1941-43.

Comfortable rooms at Bar Restaurant Merlika, Rruga Kala Kruje are available through or by phoning direct +355692131 162

Albania: Komani ferry trip – into the wild



The ferry journey from Komani to Fierza in northern Albania was billed in the guide books as ‘world class’ and ‘spectacular’ – and so it was. For a start, the ride from Shkodra had a touch of the James Bond about it. The town minibus collected us from our lodgings with a knock on our door in the early hours. After a long slow wind uphill, we were waved on by some kalashnikov-wielding guards outside a hydro-electric plant. The minibus sped into a low dark tunnel under a mountain, just wide enough for one vehicle. Happily, nothing came the other way.

We emerged onto a chaotic little quay, crammed with minibuses, people and goods. We bought our tickets and found some floor space on the top deck of the tiny car ferry. The locals stayed indoors below, but we and the other foreigners on board all wanted to see the views. Most of us were going on to hike in the Albanian Alps. For an ordinary ferry ride, there was a glorious sense of ‘into the wild’ about this trip.

Lake Komani is a vast flooded gorge that feels like a fjord. As the boat set off through the dark-turquoise waters, the tree-scattered hillsides gave way to soaring limestone cliffs. The sky was a happy postcard blue, but the mountains that towered around us kept their sense of aloofness. There were no roads. On gentler slopes, we saw the occasional distant dwelling, farmed terraces, a mule. Who could live out here, so far from roads or shops? Yet people do. The boat zig-zagged through the calm waters, stopping off at tiny landing stages where someone would disembark and tramp away with their bags, to some hidden homestead, hidden life…

Minibus leaves Shkodra 6-6.30am, takes 2 hrs, cost 5 euro; Passenger and car ferries depart from Komani to Fierza 9-9.30, takes 3.5 hrs, cost 5 euro; Transfer by bus or taxi to Valbona, takes 1 hr, cost 3-5 euro.